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On trial in a Moscow court on charges of trafficking children from surrogate mothers. Left to right: gynecologists Liliya Panaioti and Yulianna Ivanova, embryologist Taras Ashitkov, and surrogacy center general director Vladislav Melnikov. September 10, 2020.

The invention of ‘gay mutilators’ ‘Meduza’ speaks to the lawyer wanted by Russian investigators for ‘trafficking’ babies born by surrogate mothers. He says the case is about targeting gay fathers.

Source: Meduza
On trial in a Moscow court on charges of trafficking children from surrogate mothers. Left to right: gynecologists Liliya Panaioti and Yulianna Ivanova, embryologist Taras Ashitkov, and surrogacy center general director Vladislav Melnikov. September 10, 2020.
On trial in a Moscow court on charges of trafficking children from surrogate mothers. Left to right: gynecologists Liliya Panaioti and Yulianna Ivanova, embryologist Taras Ashitkov, and surrogacy center general director Vladislav Melnikov. September 10, 2020.
Emin Dzhafarov / Kommersant

On September 30, 2020, the news agency TASS reported that Russian detectives investigating a child-trafficking case are planning to arrest several gay fathers who became adoptive parents by using surrogate mothers. The public first learned about the investigation earlier this year, on July 14, when a Moscow court jailed four doctors who helped foreigners obtain the services of Russian surrogate mothers. The next day, the same court jailed another four suspects in the case. According to police, the operation’s “ringleader” is a man named Konstantin Svitnev, the head of the “Rosjurconsulting” company, which provided legal counseling to the foster parents. He says the investigators’ main target isn’t foreigners but gay men inside Russia whom the authorities want to deprive of their legal opportunity to raise children. Svitnev, who left Russia in January, spoke to Meduza special correspondent Svetlana Reiter about the case.

Konstantin Svitnev is a wanted man in Russia, but he says he’s not hiding. “The detectives don’t respond to my requests, complaints, petitions, and other kinds of correspondence,” he told Meduza. Svitnev says he’s prepared to respond to the criminal allegations against him. “As you know, the investigators think I’m a gang leader who basically served up kids for their organs. You’d think they’d want to hear me out,” he argued, clarifying that he has no intention of coming home — not since the police started arresting doctors, and after journalists reported that gay fathers are next.

How did a legal counsel for foster parents end up a fugitive? Svitnev traces the case back to the tragic death on January 9 of a baby born by a surrogate mother for a Filipino family. The infant needed surgery weeks earlier and the cause of death remains unclear to this day, says Svitnev. Living in the same apartment where the child died were two twins also born to a surrogate mother for a well-known Filipino politician. Months earlier, another surrogate mother had actually given birth to another child for the same politician.

Svitnev calls the conception of these children “absolutely miraculous,” given that the Filipino politician in question was supposedly sterile until undergoing a medical procedure in Russia. “Now Taras Ashitkov [the doctor who performed the operation] has been thrown into the NKVD’s dungeons,” says Svitnev. Using multiple surrogate mothers at once, he points out, isn’t unusual with older foster parents: “The pregnancy takes exactly as long as it does, and they’ve already lost a lot of time and don’t want to wait any longer.”

After the baby died in January, the police charged Svitnev, his lawyer, the owner of a fertility clinic, and multiple embryologists with 11 counts of child-trafficking. The investigation began when the baby’s nanny called for an ambulance on January 9. Local detectives launched the case, but it later became a federal inquiry. Officials identified 11 instances of surrogacy that Svitnev says were carried out at Russian fertility clinics for families in the Philippines and Thailand. His firm provided legal support for these arrangements.

Seven of the babies supposedly “trafficked” through surrogate mothers in Russia were born for a “well-known and highly influential Filipino politician,” says Svitnev. Five of these kids are now with their father, while the twins Anika and Arturo were seized and placed in a group home in Vidnoye for children with cognitive disabilities. “Their Filipino parents have no access to them. We don’t know what’s happened to them, what state they’re in, or even if they’re still alive. Maybe they’ve already been put up for adoption or, worse yet, sold off. Can you imagine how this family feels now?” Svitnev asked Meduza.

Another noteworthy Filipino parent who has relied on Russian surrogacy services is Conrado Potenciano, a businessman and “brilliantly trained doctor with a European education,” says Svitnev. Potenciano fathered four children through surrogate mothers in Russia. Three live with him now in Thailand, but his son Sandro is being held at the same group home in Vidnoye with Anika and Arturo.

According to the case evidence against Svitnev and the others, surrogate mothers in Russia have been carrying children illegally for Filipino clients since 2014. State investigators say doctors should have refused to include these foreign parents in their surrogacy programs because the couples had not yet exhausted other means of having children on their own, but Svitnev argues that the physicians never broke the law. “Orders from the Health Ministry determine the medical grounds for such inclusion, and the list is pretty long,” he told Meduza. “Fertility clinic doctors make the decisions about the admissibility of inclusion in surrogacy programs — not lawyers who cannot and should not know information protected by doctor-patient confidentiality.”

Unusual childcare circumstances have also raised concerns about the adoptions Svitnev helped arrange. For example, children born by different surrogate mothers were living in one apartment outside Moscow. Their adoptive parents came to Russia in late October 2019, when the babies were born, in order to collect their birth certificates, but they then returned to the Philipines with just the documents. “It takes a certain amount of time to process the other paperwork and get passports for children,” Svitnev told Meduza, adding that his busy clients often don’t have time to wait around. “The Filipino politician is one of the country’s top officials. He has official obligations,” he stressed. 

Svitnev says it was also necessary to keep the babies in Russia, hiring a nanny and renting a three-bedroom apartment, because their adoptive parents wanted to wait until the children were strong enough to endure the long flight home. With children born through surrogacy in the past, these same parents also waited several months before subjecting the babies to a transcontinental flight.

Ultimately, though, Svitnev says all responsibility for what happens to the children after they’re born lies with their adoptive parents — “not with me, not with the lawyers, not with the couriers, and not with the doctors who facilitated the children’s births.” 

The infant boy who died in an apartment on January 9 was born for a major Filipino businessman, says Svitnev. At the same home, there were also children born through surrogacy for two other businessmen (one in the Philippines and another in Thailand), in addition to the baby born for the Filipino politician Svitnev mentioned repeatedly but never named. The Thai businessman got his child out of Russia before the other babies were seized and moved to foster care.

Svitnev says the response from the Russian authorities was suspicious from the start. “By a strange coincidence,” he explains, “as soon as the nanny called for an ambulance after one of the babies died, it wasn’t just the police who showed up with the paramedics but also tabloid journalists who immediately began writing that a child’s body had been found and that the apartment was a hideout for stashing kids before they’re sold on the black market.”

Konstantin Svitnev is now the main suspect in a child-trafficking investigation but says he doesn’t understand how he came to be viewed as a criminal mastermind. He acknowledges that he provided legal counsel to the foster parents in question, but he says his apparent “transgression” is that he “persuaded them to use the surrogacy program in Russia, not in the United States, as they wanted originally.” If he’d not changed the parents’ minds, Svitnev told Meduza, all five babies kept at that apartment outside Moscow until January would now be home with their new families and alive.

In January, after the boy died and the Russian authorities took custody of the three remaining babies, Svitnev left for Prague. “The vacation was planned in advance,” he told Meduza, insisting that he never imagined the police would open an investigation into child trafficking. “There were documents from the clinic and the children’s genetic background was verified — everything was in order.” Before he went abroad, Svitnev says his firm’s lawyer, Roman Emashev, shared these records with the state investigators. “He handed over everything and I left for my vacation with a clear conscience,” says Svitnev, who realized that something was amiss when Emashev was arrested

Svitnev’s departure may have been planned, but he would be gone longer than expected. In fact, he’s still abroad now, almost 10 months later. Even after Emashev’s arrest, Svitnev didn’t cancel his trip and come back to Russia to meet with the detectives. “Why in the world should I have come to them myself?” he told Meduza. “My lawyer had already brought them all the documents. What was I supposed to explain to them? Emashev left them my telephone number, but nobody called. So they weren’t especially interested in me, I concluded.”

Konstantin Svitnev
Konstantin Svitnev’s Facebook page

The case against Russian fathers

Svitnev says many single men in Russia have utilized surrogacy since August 2010, when the courts first recognized men’s right to be full-fledged parents of children born by surrogate mothers. Svitnev says these fathers are the real target of the trafficking case against his firm and a group of fertility doctors. “State investigators have been to multiple IVF clinics, where they seized medical records that indicate the paternity data identifying the surrogate mothers’ IVF donors,” he told Meduza.

Since the criminal case was opened, Svitnev says he’s spoken to four fathers in Russia who owe their children to surrogacy. Two have already fled abroad and the others are planning to do the same, he says. “These people have homes, jobs, nannies, and tutors. And federal investigators might show up one day and announce that they’re arresting them and taking the kids because they decided to become parents in this country,” explains Svitnev. He declined to say openly if he, too, owes his family to surrogacy. “All I can say is that there’s a dash in the ‘mother’ column on my kids’ birth certificates,” he told Meduza

This July, just after Svitnev postponed a flight back to Moscow to collect his family, police raided his home and seized all four of his children. Armed officers turned his house inside-out and even confiscated a dozen family photo albums. “Every photograph of my children from the past four years is gone,” says Svitnev, who also lost many of the archival materials he’s collected in Prague for a book he’s writing about the Charles Bridge. 

Thanks to the efforts of his lawyer, however, Svitnev was able to recover his children within a day. “He found them at an infectious diseases hospital in Pushkino [outside Moscow] and managed by some miracle to get them out,” explains Svitnev, who says the kids are now afraid to sleep in the dark. They’ve been safe with his relatives ever since. 

Svitnev says the raid on his home was meant as a signal to other fathers in Russia who have used surrogacy. If it could happen to him — “someone pretty well-known in his field” — it could happen to them, too. “All of this was cooked up to put a stop to single fathers,” he says. “And I’m certain that these poor Filipinos and Thais were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were needed to invent ‘gay mutilators’ who buy children.” 

While homophobia presumably plays a role in this police campaign, Svitnev says money is probably the biggest incentive. “The [surrogacy] market is worth billions of dollars in Russia alone. It’s possible that someone with ties to the authorities might have ideas about putting this industry under their own control,” he told Meduza.

A source in Russia’s Investigative Committee told the news agency TASS that detectives are preparing to charge several men with child trafficking on the grounds that they were ineligible for IVF donation because of their homosexuality. Svitnev says he never asked clients about their sexual orientation and cites Article 19 of Russia’s Constitution, which guarantees “equal rights and freedoms” and “equal possibilities to exercise them” to men and women alike. Russia’s Domestic Relations Code, moreover, defines single men as equal to single women (who are permitted to adopt children). Svitnev says focusing on fostercare misses the point, in fact, given that limits on adoption cannot restrict fathers’ rights to their own children, which is what’s at stake in surrogacy. 

Konstantin Svitnev says he’s spent the past decade lobbying for equality in paternal rights, and he takes credit for “hundreds of court rulings” reached in favor of fathers who had children through surrogate mothers. “Maybe that’s what did me in. On two separate occasions, I was pulled aside by very high-ranking people who hinted that I was skating on thin ice,” he says.

The men who father children through surrogacy are typically quite affluent. The process isn’t cheap, after all. In Russia, it costs roughly 3.5 million rubles (almost $45,000). The single men who pursue this option are typically young, self-dependent, and self-assured, Svitnev says. “Some have been married or lived with partners before. Surrogacy appeals to these men because they don’t want to share their children with wives, risk their assets in a divorce, or expose themselves to blackmail. The way events have unfolded, however, they’ve found themselves blackmailed nevertheless, except the state is behind it.”

Interview by Svetlana Reiter

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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